Council reluctantly votes to raise water rates by 19%

Friday, September 17, 2010

Amid calls from three councilmen for more control over the Water and Wastewater Department, Lewisburg's City Council on Friday morning voted to increase water and sewer rates by an average of 19 percent.

Councilmen also set two special meetings -- Monday and Thursday evenings -- to finalize the decision required by the state because of an order city leaders accepted several years ago to improve Lewisburg's sewage treatment system.

The average household might see water costs increase by more than $12 per month, according to calculations made late last month with figures provided by the city-owned utility that sells water to Marshall County's Board of Public Utilities. That panel meets Tuesday morning. Its leaders have been waiting for a decision by Lewisburg before calculating what it must do to afford the city's rate hike.

Circumstances leading to the unanimous vote during a 7:30 a.m. Friday meeting are like a daisy chain of knots that simply unravel when pulled to reveal one connected event after another.

It starts in 1972 with the Clean Water Act by Congress to protect rivers and streams from discharges of sewage. Lewisburg's plant was built in the 1950s. It was expanded and renovated in 1986 when EPA helped the city pay for that and the installation of a swirl system to remove solids when wastewater flowing into the system exceeded the plant's capacity to treat what it receives from the collection system.

The swirl system allowed diluted sewage -- without solids -- to be discharged when the volume exceeds the treatment plant's capacity.

"There always has been and always will be" seepage of groundwater and rain into broken sewers, thereby increasing the volume of wastewater piped to a treatment plant, Kenneth Carr, superintendent of the Water and Wastewater Department, explained.

Repairing pipes could cost several times a $13 million price tag for updating the treatment plant. One councilman paid $800 to repair his sewer service line from his house to the city sewer tap.

Environmental protections imposed since 1986 require biological treatment of all discharges with chemicals that are removed before the remaining effluent -- cleaned wastewater -- may be drained to Big Rock Creek.

To deal with the excess flow due to broken pipes, Lewisburg has plans to build a 10 million gallon holding tank. That way, wastewater exceeding the plant's treatment capacity could be held until after the flow recedes. The city also plans to double the treatment capacity from three to six million gallons per day and develop a special sludge removal system.

Those plans could result in a project cost of $13 million, although bids have not yet been called for the construction project that's to be completed before Jan. 1, 2012.

As those plans were being refined, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act adopted by Congress made economic stimulus money available to Tennessee and Gov. Phil Bredesen assigned some to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's revolving loan program. While that's a program to loan money, $2 million of the stimulus money could be loaned to Lewisburg through a "forgivable loan," thereby cutting the city's cost by nearly 15.4 percent.

Pepper Biggers, the city's assistant superintendent over water and wastewater, went to a TDEC meeting to make the state agency aware that the city wants the forgivable loan. To remain qualified, the city must show that it's financially capable of completing the project and that's where the water rate hike becomes mandatory.

The rate hike schedule includes water and sewer costs in the city and for customers beyond the city line. It also lists costs for Cornersville and utilities that buy water at a wholesale price.

Complaints from three councilmen at the several City Hall meetings show their distrust of the water utilities' management. Spending to extend water service along Lynnville Pike and the purchase of the Cornersville water and sewer system were cited as expenditures that shouldn't have been made when the money should have been spent on improving the sewerage system in Lewisburg.

Meanwhile, a Sept. 30 deadline looms for Lewisburg to prove to TDEC that it will be able to finance the expansion of the treatment plant. Without the rate schedule, the city would have lost eligibility for the $2 million in federal economic stimulus money.

The city could also lose its eligibility for another loan that would have to be repaid at a rate of two percent.

During one recent council meeting, Councilman Robin Minor balked at the proposed rate schedule, saying he wanted the burden shifted from Lewisburg property tax payers to people beyond the town line who are buying water and sewer services from the city.

Reexamination of the utility's budget by a TDEC accountant revealed that some revenue streams hadn't been tapped, but that good management should include more money allocated to depreciation, an accounting practice of saving money in an account separate from reserves so there's money to purchase replacement equipment when its needed. It's like a motorist's savings account to buy a car when the current vehicle is worn out.

And so what's led to the rate hike are: accounting standards; stimulus money requirements; environmental protection laws; and proof to the EPA and TDEC that the city is financially capable of paying for the treatment plant project.

On Tuesday, Councilman Ronald McRady asked that TDEC officials be consulted to see if the city could delay the project because residents here can't afford to pay more for water and sewer services. If that didn't work, he suggested state Sen. Bill Ketron and state Rep. Eddie Bass be asked to resolve the matter for the city.

Neither solution was seen as possible by the time the city council met Friday morning.

McRady, Minor and Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr. agreed that they had to vote for the rate increase and said so. They asked their constituents to understand the problem.

City officials reported that their telephone conversations with TDEC leaders this week revealed state officials would enforce federal requirements and that Lewisburg's council might attract enforcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Atlanta, a step that would make the situation worse for Lewisburg and life difficult for TDEC officials.

According to discussion at the city's water utility board meeting on Thursday, EPA officials' enforcement authority has been exercised to incarcerate sewage treatment plant operators elsewhere on a charge of falsification of records with regard to times when sewage was allowed to pass through the treatment plant without complying with environmental requirements to report such overflows to the state.

With the possibility of such extreme consequences -- including a pending civil penalty for Lewisburg -- Minor, McRady and Whitehead expressed a lack of confidence in the water system's management because money spent on the Cornersville system, and extension of the water line from Cornersville to the Giles County line along Lynnville Pike cost money that should have been spent in Lewisburg.

However, the three men, who've consistently voted against raising rates, explained they had no choice and voted under protest on Friday morning.

Councilman Hershel Davis, chairman of the water board, voted for the ordinance. Councilman Quinn Brandon Stewart, who serves as Cornersville's city attorney, refrained from voting to avoid a conflict of interest between her positions.

Monday's 4:30 p.m. meeting is when the second of three required votes will be conducted to adopt an ordinance to increase water rates. Thursday's council meeting will be when the panel holds a public hearing on the rate increase and when the third and final vote will be conducted to adopt the ordinance.

Those are special-called meeting dates when only the announced business may be considered. McRady, Minor and Whitehead agreed the council should consider reorganizing the way authority over the utility is written to make it more accountable to the elected councilmen instead of appointed members of the appointed water board. If work on that is to start, it would be during a special meeting called for that purpose, or placed on the agenda of the next regular meeting of the council which is to begin at 6 p.m. on Oct. 12.

For more on this on-going story, search for previous reports, including "Water rate hike may be 17%, not 10%," a piece published Aug. 25. Others may also be found by searching the web site by using the search words City Council and sewage treatment plant.

Another substantive story is planned for the print edition of the Marshall County Tribune to be distributed on Wednesday Sept. 23.